The Butterfly Pig Makes Playtime Inclusive With Medical Toys for Kids
By: Lauren Keating
There are medical pretend play toys on top of the sterile, wooden doctor’s office. In her white lab coat, my 4-year-old daughter is in the zone as she treats her patients. She starts by placing the baby doll on the scale. She unwraps the stethoscope from her neck to check the heartbeat. She puts the thermometer to the doll’s face.
“She’s got a high fever,” she dramatically declares. The visit usually ends with a shot, stuffy and baby doll alike. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt that much,” she says, her soothing tone mirroring the action of rubbing the doll’s knee.
But this time the baby is having some serious trouble. It's an allergic reaction to peanuts—something Doctor Brooke is well aware of. She picks up the toy EpiPen with confidence, pointing the orange end toward the leg. She looks back with eyes of doubt, double-checking the exact placement.
“Orange to the thigh, blue to the sky,” the print on the toy reads. We go over it again, and she is ready to treat her doll. With just a little pressure the medicine works instantly. She quickly moves on to the next patient.
This EpiPen toy is from the medical device toy company, The Butterfly Pig. The company’s mission is to spread inclusivity and diversity while increasing medical representation in the toy space. The toys are used as teaching tools to make medical procedures less scary while encouraging kids to take ownership of their medical conditions.
“It [the toys] helps to normalize medical differences,” The Butterfly Pig creator Mary Jenner said. “When kids are exposed to these types of devices and ideas early on, it just builds the good foundation for inclusion later on in life, too.”
Jenner launched The Butterfly Pig in 2020, leaving her job as an oncology nurse in an outpatient cancer center in the Sacramento, California area to pursue her business full-time in April 2023.
“Working as a nurse in pediatric oncology, I always found it was easier to do procedures when the kids understood what was going on,” she said. “So often, I would help them with that by putting IVs in their stuffed animals and showing them on the stuffed animal first.”
After noticing the lack of medical device toys on the market, Jenner used her maternity leave during the pandemic to bring her big ideas to fruition. She felt that while her blonde hair and blue-eyed daughter had lots of representation, the many patients she treated did not.
Jenner started the business selling baby dolls with Down syndrome, a way to teach her daughter about diversity during the pandemic. To her surprise when searching for diverse dolls there wasn’t a single company selling dolls with similar features in the U.S.
The Butterfly Pig proudly is one of the U.S.-based companies to sell dolls with Down syndrome features. (Jenner even advised Miniland, the second U.S.-based company to sell them, before it decided to follow suit.)
“It seems silly that there hasn't been much medical inclusion until now,” Jenner said. “It's a great feeling that we're part of the movement, but it also just seems so needed and so obvious. I find it still shocking that nobody else is. So, it's kind of weird, but yeah, great feeling that we've been able to increase representation.”
There remain very few diverse medical dolls and toys on the market. Mattel, for example, only launched its first Barbie with Down syndrome features in spring 2023, and a Barbie with a hearing aid in 2022.
Jenner began selling medical device toys secondary to the dolls, a way to further push for more patient representation. Among the first few medical toys made included a GI tube, an insulin pump, and a Cochlear implant, an electronic medical device that provides sound to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The first models were made out of clay. Manufacturing took a lot of time, and it soon became hard to keep up with demand. Clay also limited the devices that could be made. So Jenner invested in a 3D printer—a game changer for production and creativity—downloaded 3D CAD software for creating objects, and enlisted the help of her father Gary Eldridge, an engineer, to help.
“This is probably the most fun job I've ever had,” Eldridge said. “I’m a toymaker now. I never thought I'd be saying that. I'm just really proud of her. She's one of the most caring people I know. ”
From NG tubes, VP Shunts, and cardiac monitors, to toy PICC lines, Halo Neck braces, and folding canes the list of toys continues to grow to have more than 60 products.
When it comes to design, the duo collaborates using her knowledge in the medical field and his in engineering. After printing, Jenner said it typically takes a few renditions before the product is satisfactory to them. And they constantly improve on designs to make the toys more realistic and functional.
The Cochlear implant is now made out of eco-friendly plastic and attaches to a doll using a clip for the hair, can be glued to a bald doll, or sewed on.
“She won't let me stop,” Eldridge playfully said. “She’s telling me we need more devices.”
The designs are made per the requests of consumers, which include parents and patients, as well as health professionals like physical therapists. This includes AAC tablets, feeding pumps, and gastrostomy tubes among the most popular.
It was mainly parents like Alyssa Biederman who were the main consumers when the company first launched.
“ I felt a lot of hope finding The Butterfly Pig because they have inclusive accessories for all kids that are going through various things, have different mobility aids, or use different devices,” Biederman said.
Before finding the toy company, the Columbus, Ohio-based mom would attempt to add G-tubes into stuffed animals for her young daughter.
Lenny, now age 3, is diagnosed with CHARGE, a rare genetic disorder that can affect the heart, nerves, eyes, and ears. After showing an interest in dolls, and being aware of her G-tube, Biderman found the company and purchased a doll and some toys including the feeding pump kit and hearing aid. Biederman was able to create a doll whose features look more like her eyes and nose which better represents how beautiful Lenny is.
“They’re continuing to try to create more inclusivity, they're trying to kind of celebrate these things and that this is just a part of—their human needs.”
For Lenny who has had multiple surgeries, it’s a way to make her feel comfortable at appointments. It educates her on how the devices work and what they are for.
“It's a great way just to kind of make it not so scary, some of these things because it can be overwhelming, especially for little kids,” she said. "It is even for adults when they first are kind of watching and learning how to use it. So, I think this kind of just makes it more of a playful interaction as well.”
In the early years of life when imagination flows to saturate most games and activities, pretend play is typical among toddlers and young children. The Butterfly Pig toys are a form of play therapy that helps them process and cope with the medical issues they face.
“Kids learn through play,” Jenner said. “These types of toys are really what you need to help kids understand the complex world of medical care.”
Jenner said that even watching the children interact with the toys can teach parents and health professionals about how they process their medical conditions and care.
As the buzz continues, The Butterfly Pig is not just selling to parents, but to vendors that include Johns Hopkins Hospital and other child medical care companies. Because children cannot touch their real medical devices, the toys allow them to take on the role of the caregiver to empower them and allow them to be involved in their care.
As a company, children are taught that they can face anything when hit with challenges. This is the message of Jenner’s children's book also titled The Butterfly Pig. Following the story of a pig born with butterfly wings who feels like he doesn’t fit in, the main character learns to embrace his differences.
"It prepares them in a non-threatening playful environment, so when they have the procedure, then they're more confident in knowing what's going on.”
“Taking this step further and trying to make something for kids to make them happy,” Eldridge
said, "it's kind of fun to just be participating with that.”
The Butterfly Pig toys are also great for classrooms. Many kids might not be exposed to feeding tubes, hearing aids, or mobility devices and not know what these are. Kids are curious by nature, and exposing them to diversity allows us to teach compassion and acceptance.
Consumer Biederman also uses the toys to teach her older son, age 7, about her daughter Lenny’s medical conditions and to expose him to differences. The family teaches that some kids eat using their mouths. Others, like Lenny, use a feeding tube. “I think it's been a positive way to celebrate the differences in the way that we all do things,” she said.
As a company children are taught that they can face anything when hit with challenges. This is the message of Jenner’s children's book also titled The Butterfly Pig. Following the story of a pig born with butterfly wings who feels like he doesn’t fit in, the main character learns to embrace his differences.
“I feel like everybody to some extent has felt like they didn't fit in, in one way or another,” Jenner said. “And so, it's important for every kid to feel represented. And to grow up, not feeling other than in a way.”